Harvard study: The key to living a meaningful and happy life

So it took a bunch of smart people at Harvard to identify the single most important factor toward leading a meaningful and happy life: Good relationships.

Melanie Curtin reports for Inc. on findings from the multi-generational Harvard Study of Adult Development, spanning some 75 years:

  • “According to Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one thing surpasses all the rest in terms of importance: ‘The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.'”
  • “Specifically, the study demonstrates that having someone to rely on helps your nervous system relax, helps your brain stay healthier for longer, and reduces both emotional as well as physical pain.”
  • “The data is also very clear that those who feel lonely are more likely to see their physical health decline earlier and die younger.”
  • “‘It’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship,’ says Waldinger. ‘It’s the quality of your close relationships that matters.'”

Okay, there are big qualifiers here in terms of the study participants. The 75-year study is limited to white men from two cohorts. Obviously it’s not the most diverse of participant pools. However, the longitudinal nature of the study is unique and makes the findings worthy of our attention. (Those who want to read more about the Harvard study may go to its website.)

Piece of cake, right?

So, if you want to live a good life, then build good relationships. It’s that easy!

Or maybe not. You see, other studies, analyses, and commentaries are telling us that loneliness is a huge problem in our society and that the absence of quality relationships in individual lives is adding up to a big public health issue.

Billy Baker, a soon-to-be-40-year-old feature writer for the Boston Globe Magazine, opens his recent piece on loneliness and middle aged men:

I’d been summoned to an editor’s office at the Globe Magazine with the old “We have a story we think you’d be perfect for.” This is how editors talk when they’re about to con you into doing something you don’t want to do.

Here was the pitch: We want you to write about how middle-aged men have no friends.

Excuse me? I have plenty of friends. Are you calling me a loser? You are.

The editor told me there was all sorts of evidence out there about how men, as they age, let their close friendships lapse, and that that fact can cause all sorts of problems and have a terrible impact on their health.

Baker then appeals to some expert testimony:

Health writer Emily Gurnon, writing last year for Next Avenue, cites a major 2016 analysis indicating more of the same:

You may have heard that loneliness is hazardous to your health — and can even lead to an early death. Now, an analysis of 23 scientific studies gives us numbers that reveal just how sick it can really make you.

People with “poor social relationships” had a 29 percent higher risk of newly diagnosed heart disease and a 32 percent higher risk of stroke, according to the study, published July 1 in the British journal Heart.

That puts loneliness and social isolation on par with other known risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as anxiety and job strain, the researchers said. And it exceeds the risk posed by physical inactivity and obesity, said lead researcher Nicole Valtorta, of the Department of Health Sciences, University of York, England.

Relationships and work

The modern workplace is an incubator for social relationships of all kinds, ranging from casual friendships to romantic ties. When work is good and so are the people you’re working with, the possibilities for positive relationships are considerable.

But what happens when things at work aren’t so good, or they disintegrate? What happens when, say, some type of workplace mistreatment enters the picture?

In such situations, the quality of relationships may suffer greatly. When someone is experiencing a form of work abuse such as sexual harassment, bullying, or mobbing, supposed friends may abandon or distance themselves from the targeted individual or otherwise dive for cover, fearful for their own job security.

My very generic advice is that we shouldn’t base all of our friendships in the workplace. But it’s not easy to engineer where our friends come from; so many factors are at play.

Furthermore, at times I have not always practiced what I just preached. For example, when I was a young Legal Aid lawyer, we socialized together all the time. Currently, however, most of my friends come from outside my place of employment. Some happen to be professors and lawyers, but many are not. Overall, they hail from many different walks of life, and I am grateful for that.

Now that I am solidly into my middle years, these research findings about the quality of life being strongly shaped by our relationships resonate significantly with me. In terms of lessons, this means being more intentional about this important aspect of our lives, no small task when so many other priorities compete with it.

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